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February 22, 2021

by Noel Barteck

The recent chimney fire at a home in Withee, with the resulting significant fire and water damage, made me think that there are a couple of Fire Safety Articles which probably should still be put out there as a reminder to our readers. There was no mention in the newspaper articles if working smoke detectors were present in the home, or not. I’m surprised that the owners of the home were not alerted to the problem by activation of their smoke detectors, although smoke detectors are not recommended to be placed in an attic. This story might have had a different outcome had the fire occurred during the night. Chimney fires were discussed in an earlier article, so this one will focus on smoke alarms.

“Parents should not rely on their children waking to the smoke alarm in the event of a fire and should not assume that they will immediately evacuate if they do wake up to a fire.”

This quote from an article in a Good Housekeeping magazine caught my attention and made me think that we needed to devote a single article to the presence of smoke detectors in your home. It was based upon research done at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, and concluded that 78% of school-aged children slept through a smoke alarm blaring for 30 seconds. The study, published in the journal Fire and Materials, asked 79 families to trip their smoke alarm after their child had been asleep between one to three hours.

The group of 123 children — the average age was 9 — was split in two according to which children had hit puberty. It was an intentional division: plasma melatonin levels — melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone which helps induce sleep — decrease in conjunction with puberty onset.  Parents reported that of the 22% of children who awoke, only half identified the noise as a smoke alarm. And only half of those children knew that smoke alarms mean “Get Out Now”. Younger kids between the ages of 5 and 10 made up 70% of the study participants; they were likeliest to sleep through the alarm. Just over half of 11-to-15-year-olds, or 56%, slept through the din, but 87% of the younger group did.

It's not that smoke detectors aren't helpful; they've been used in homes since the 1960s and have certainly saved lives. But it's a reminder that the people you may be most concerned about in the event of a fire are least likely to even know an emergency is underway.

"Parents should not rely on their children waking to the smoke alarm in the event of a fire and should not assume that they will immediately evacuate if they do wake up to a fire," says Dorothy Bruck, the study's lead author.

Perhaps you recall reading about a tragic fire in one of our other Fire Safety articles that took place near Ripon, WI, on November 9, 2001. Three members of the Edward Simson family lost their lives due to circumstances that could have been prevented.  

Several things contributed to this tragedy.  Factors that could not have been easily changed were the old-fashioned balloon construction of the two-story farmhouse. This allowed the fire to quickly spread to the upper floors of the house.  Walls insulated with hay added fuel to the fire, and a tin roof helped hold in the heat.

Apparently, there were no smoke detectors in the structure. “Smoke detectors and not blocking their exits to the west probably would have been a big contributing factor to getting out alive,” said Ripon Fire Chief Mike Fredrick, a veteran with 32 years of experience.

Teach your children to respond to the alarm of the smoke detector:  1.) Plan Your Escape 2.) Stay Low As You Go

Please take time today to check the batteries in your smoke detectors!  Every year as Daylight Savings Time begins or ends, we are reminded to also change the batteries in our smoke detectors. This is a good habit to get into because it ensures that the early warning system that most of us have in our homes will be in working order if or when we need it. 

The average life expectancy for a smoke detector is about ten years. If you have detectors in your home that are more than ten years old, it is time to replace them. The new fire codes require you to install a “ten year” detector.  This is a detector which has an integrated battery in it (one that cannot be removed or tampered with) and is rated for a ten-year life expectancy, after which time the entire unit should be replaced.  (It is actually now illegal for stores to be selling the older styles with removable batteries.)

Smoke detection devices can be subject to other failures as well, but missing or dead batteries are the most common reason why residents are not notified in the event of a fire. It is a good idea to test your detector periodically with the real thing – take a large wooden match, light it and let it burn for a few seconds, then blow it out and hold the smoking match near the openings of your smoke detector. The horn should sound as the smoke enters the detection chamber. If the detector is faulty the alarm will not be activated and the smoke detector should be replaced. (I have two detectors that are on very high ceilings, so I tape two matches to the end of a yard stick and follow the aforementioned procedure.)

It is important to note that smoke detectors use a tiny amount of radioactive material in the detection chamber, so if it is necessary to replace one that no longer works you should not just throw it in the garbage. It should be recycled properly. A Clean Sweep Program makes an ideal venue for the safe disposal of an unwanted or non-working smoke detector.

Proper placement of smoke detection devices is as important as making sure they are in working condition.  Ideally there should be smoke detectors on each floor of a dwelling. It is a good idea to have a separate detector outside of each room where people are normally going to be sleeping. If yours is a ranch style home, or an exceptionally large home, and sleeping areas are separated by a significant distance it might be advisable to consult with an electrician and install smoke alarms that are interconnected so that if one is activated all alarms will sound.

The members of the Owen-Withee-Curtiss Fire Department are here to serve our communities in any capacity during an emergency. We do also grieve like anyone else when our preparedness and efforts fall short, and lives are lost.  

Please take time today to assess your home for safety hazards. Be sure you have working smoke detectors installed on each level of your home and in each sleeping area.  Remove any obstacles that would prevent a speedy escape from any exit in the event of fire.  

We are proud of our record of low numbers of fires in previous years, and even lower numbers of injuries and deaths!  Let’s all do our part to keep it that way. 


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